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The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey is the first chapter in Peter Jackson’s new Middle-earth trilogy – once again adapted from the beloved fantasy world brought about by author J.R.R. Tolkien. After director Guillermo del Toro left the project, Jackson took on the director’s chair and expanded the would-be movie series – initially conceived as a two-part adaptation of The Hobbit storyline – into a full-on Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy.
While the story plot of Part 1, An Unexpected Journey, and Part 2, The Desolation of Smaug, involve a relatively straightforward storyline, the mystery surrounding Part 3, There and Back Again, has left many fans wondering if Jackson and New Line Cinema sacrificed a quality Hobbit adaptation for a third chance for box office earnings.
There and Back Again is set for release in summer 2014, so it’ll be awhile before we can definitively weigh in on that trilogy decision; however, if The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey is any indication of what will happen, Lord of the Rings loyal fans have reason to be hopeful that the director will provide another captivating round of Middle-earth journeys. An Unexpected Journey does not match the scale established in Lord of the Rings, but there are still plenty of eye-popping visuals, enchanting action set-pieces, and intriguing character cameos, to prevent the film from being the underwhelming (and cheesy) experience that some skeptics were anticipating. In fact, the more intimate storyline, centered around reluctant/adventure-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), his thirteen dwarf companions, and the renowned Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), often outshines similar plot beats from The Fellowship of the Ring.
In The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey, a pre-Lord of the Rings Bilbo Baggins has abandoned his thirst for adventure in favor of a safe and comfortable life in The Shire. For decades, Bilbo has loved the quiet of Bag End, his Hobbit-hole, a well-stocked pantry, and the warmth of his fireplace to the beauty and terrors of the lands beyond his home – until Gandalf the Grey arrives at his doorsteps.
The wizard invites The Hobbit on a quest to help a band of dwarves retake their homeland, The Lonely Mountain, from a ruthless and dangerous dragon, Smaug. Unwilling to resist the opportunity for adventure, Bilbo agrees to go along with the group, which is led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), heir to the King Under the Mountain crown. The gang encounters challenge after challenge, and – unbeknownst to even the noble Gandalf – bears first witness to a dangerous sequence of events that will haunt the next generation of hobbits, dwarves, elves, and men.
Unsurprisingly, there are a few similarities between An Unexpected Journey and The Fellowship of the Ring, most easily to be seen is the core premise (a ragtag gang of heroes on a life-or-death quest through the wilds of Middle-earth); still, Jackson’s latest work is differentiated by a number of smart moviemaking choices and solid character dynamics that were shown in the Tolkien source material – especially the multifaceted Bilbo Baggins.
Freeman gives a sharp and captivating performance as the courageous hobbit – bringing nuance to a role that draws stark contrast to Elijah Wood’s turn as Frodo (who loves an especially light-hearted cameo return). Unlike the Lord of the Rings protagonist, Bilbo revels in his adventure – even when he’s in over his head – with a solid balance of wit, humor, and bravery that translates into genuinely entertaining (as well as emotionally impactful) scenes. Although the tone of The Hobbit book is a bit lighter compared to Lord of the Rings, the movie version of Bilbo easily fits into Jackson’s darker overarching film universe – which should be a relief to audiences that were put-off by the rowdy dwarf antics that have dominated the film adaptation’s marketing.
In fact, the dwarves successfully walk a very fine line between jolly goofballs and downright tough-as-nails warriors. Many of their respective combat scenes aren’t just intriguing, they feature unique action beats that are especially impressive when you take into consideration the superb mix of camera tricks, CGI, and practical prosthetics used to make onscreen interactions seem believable when dwarf, goblin, hobbit, and wizard parts all collide in the fight. A flashback scene that establishes Thorin as the leader of the group of dwarf is especially impressive, and could compete against fan-favorite battles from Return of the King – cementing the character as one of the strongest brawlers in Middle-earth.
Many subtle (and some not-so subtle) changes lead to tense and enchanting action scenes, together with imaginative visual spectacle, helping to ratchet up the relatively modest Hobbit source material storyline – and produce a movie experience that matches the thrill and breadth of the original movie trilogy. Hence, fans of the series will also love many classic character moments in An Unexpected Journey – especially the fateful game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis). Jackson manages to provide even the quietest scenes with weight – as certain developments carry impact far beyond the short-term Hobbit-centric storyline.
Sadly, not all of the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings bridging serves the story at hand – which results in a lengthy movie (169 minutes) that contains a few overlong or disjointed sequences. All of the Lord of the Rings foreshadowing is interesting, but at times it undercuts the importance of the current objective (Smaug and the Lonely Mountain). It’s evident that The Hobbit tale could have probably been told in two movies and, as a result, audiences will probably be mixed on the success of the bridging sequences in An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, as well as There and Back Again; however, the added content barely undermines the quality of Jackson’s latest effort – even for especially cynical filmgoers.
More to the controversy is the director’s choice to film in 48fps – a format that results in ultra-realistic visuals but, as many moviemakers argue, is so true-to-life that it can actually be a distraction – depriving moviegoers of immersion. We’ve put together a different editorial discussing the pros and cons of The Hobbit in 48fps but, with regard to a review recommendation, the format is definitely worth experiencing – if for no other reason than to form your own opinion (considering there’s a HFR 3D-ready theater near you). 48 frames per second can be disorienting at first, but An Unexpected Journey makes smart use of the presentation – providing a number of breath-taking visual set pieces. There are tons of films that we would not want to see in 48fps and, much like 3D, moviemakers should be smart about when to use and avoid the format, but Jackson’s Hobbit film is a worthy trial run.
In the long run, The Hobbit prequels could be weakened by Jackson’s extended three-movie scheme, but if Part 2 and Part 3 are as enjoyable as An Unexpected Journey, it’ll be hard for filmgoers to complain. The movie includes everything that made the original Lord of the Rings trilogy so remarkable – action-adventure, charm, humor, and jaw-dropping fantasy battles. Indeed, a few extemporaneous Lord of the Rings elements slow things down and distract from the heart Hobbit storyline, but overall, the director has once again provided audiences with a charming and exciting trip to Middle-earth.